A Premonition of Death: General James Byrne | HistoryNet MENU

A Premonition of Death: General James Byrne

By Richard Selcer
3/1/2017 • Wild West Magazine

When retired General James Byrne was working in west Texas for the T&P Railway, his mind was more on Victorio’s Apaches and his wife back home in Fort Worth.

In the middle of August 1880 Mrs. Lilly L. Byrne of Fort Worth, Texas, received a devastating telegraph from El Paso. Apaches had murdered her husband, James Byrne. A few days later a small yellow envelope arrived. This letter is only to be delivered to Mrs. Byrne in the event of my death, read the writing on the back of the envelope. Inside were two pages—one of which was her husband’s last will and testament—handwritten on Texas & Pacific Railway Co. letterhead dated August 2, just 11 days before his death. The missives explained how to dispose of his sizable estate and described the premonition he felt of his approaching death. It remains among the most dramatic premonitions of death in American military annals, at least of those committed to paper; the best known is a letter Union Army Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife a week before the July 21, 1861, First Battle of Bull Run.

 

James J. Byrne was born in Ireland in 1841 and immigrated to the United States with his family in the great Irish exodus of the next decade. At the onset of the Civil War he enlisted in the New York Volunteers, first in the infantry and then, when he re-upped, in the cavalry. Promoted to colonel by war’s end, he was sent to Texas as part of the Union occupation and was in Galveston when mustered out in 1866. Despite a cloud over his record , he was brevetted major general in 1867 for meritorious conduct in the recent conflict.

Byrne remained in Texas, moving to the small frontier community of Fort Worth, where he was appointed U.S. marshal for the Eastern District of Texas and married Lilly Loving. They took a honeymoon trip to New York City before settling down in Fort Worth. Their only child, daughter Ida, died in infancy in 1879. In the late 1870s, with the Texas & Pacific (T&P) Railway pushing across Texas, Byrne came to the attention of railroad baron William Thomas Scott, which got him a job as chief engineer for the T&P. His specific duties involved determining the most practicable route across west Texas on the way to San Diego, Calif., and surveying the right of way along that route. Byrne was one of those intrepid Western surveyors whose job it was to push well beyond the farthest reaches of civilization, scouting the best route for the railroads coming along behind them. He worked out of Fort Worth, which at that time was the end of the line for the T&P.

In the summer of 1880 Byrne set off on a 600-mile trip west to El Paso to find the best route through the Guadalupe Mountains. It was a barren route with no real roads, no bridges to span streams and gullies, and few white men along the way to provide hospitality. The only outposts of civilization for hundreds of square miles on the Texas side of the Rio Grande were Ysleta Station, Eagle Spring, San Elizario, El Paso (barely a wide place in the road) and Fort Quitman (80 miles southeast of El Paso). The U.S. Army had recently reoccupied Fort Quitman as a base in its war against Chiricahua Apache Chief Victorio and his band of fewer than 300 men, women and children. Victorio refused to stay on the Mescalero Apache agency (east of the Rio Grande in the Sierra Blanca range of New Mexico Territory) with the rest of his people but preferred to live nomadically, as his people had always done in the vast Southwest. He continually crossed and recrossed the international border, staying one jump ahead of U.S. and Mexican troops. His favorite hideouts were the Chihuahuan Desert on the Mexican side and the Guadalupe Mountains on the American side. A stage road and a vulnerable telegraph line were all that linked the civilian and Army outposts in west Texas. Coaches carried the mail and an occasional passenger between isolated posts. Despite the presence of the U.S. military and station crews at all the stage stops, that part of Texas still belonged to the Apaches.

The end of July found Byrne at Ysleta Station, 15 miles southeast of El Paso on the El Paso Road. He was planning a trip through the Quitman Mountains to Fort Davis, still scouting potential routes for the railroad. On the night of August 2, with the coming trip on his mind, he wrote a prophetic letter to Lilly, informing her glumly, “The Indians have crossed over [the Rio Grande] again into Texas and have already commenced their fiendish atrocities.” He chronicled 13 recent victims—men and women, soldiers and civilians—adding the murders had occurred in the very area he was to work. Then he said ominously, “I have gone so far in this business that I cannot now back down with either honor or self-respect and must go through with it.”

 

Among the members of the T&P survey party working in the area was Pat Dowling (sometimes written as Dooling), an infamous Irishman and former soldier who was “transportation and commissary” officer for his crew. Dowling and Byrne spent some of the long, lonely nights drinking together. One night at Ysleta Station the talk turned to death and dying, and Byrne blurted out, “Pat, I’m not afraid to die, but I don’t want to be buried where the wolves can get me.” The men made a solemn pledge to each other and shook hands to seal it: If either was killed in this godforsaken country, the other would return his body to civilization for a decent burial. It was after this Byrne penned a couple of lengthy and detailed farewell missives to his wife (see sidebar, P. 66).

On Tuesday morning, August 10, Byrne set off from Fort Quitman on the El Paso Road, headed for Fort Davis in a mule-drawn stagecoach. The only other person with him was veteran driver Ed Walde. They had a long, grueling trip ahead of them and should have waited for more passengers or even a military escort. But Byrne had work to do and did not want to spend any more time than necessary at the inhospitable post, so it was just him and Walde, an equally game fellow. They were about nine miles from Fort Quitman, just passing Quitman Canyon, when intercepted by a roving band of Apaches, numbering about a dozen. As the Indians let out war whoops and attacked, Walde turned the team around and whipped them into a gallop back the direction they had come. Between them the two men had only one weapon with two rounds, Walde’s Winchester rifle, which Byrne worked while the driver furiously whipped the mules. No explanation was ever given why they had set out on such a dangerous trip with only a single rifle and two rounds, and a Fort Worth newspaper would subsequently opine that had they been better armed, they might have escaped unharmed.

Instead, the Indian ponies quickly caught up with the coach, and bullets soon smacked through the passenger compartment, striking Byrne in the hip and small of the back. Although his hip was shattered, neither wound was immediately fatal. Walde managed to outrace the Indians back to the presumed safety of the fort. All he suffered was a hole through his hat, but when he pulled up, Byrne was hanging partly out of the coach in a bad way. The Apaches broke off the fight, not knowing there were only two others in the fort at the time—a telegraph operator and 17-year-old relay driver Charlie West. The four could never have stood off a determined Indian attack, even with a healthy Byrne. They were grateful for their reprieve. The telegraph operator sent an urgent message to El Paso requesting reinforcements and a doctor. The military was stretched thin, and a relief party did not arrive until four days later.

The next day, August 11, the El Paso telegraph office sent a message to Fort Worth advising them of the situation. There was no indication how seriously wounded Byrne was. Back at Fort Quitman young Charlie West tried to tend the general’s wounds as best he could with no medical supplies or training. Mostly he just made his patient comfortable, gave him whiskey to ease the pain and talked to him. On August 14, just hours before help arrived from El Paso, Byrne died. Since he had not bled to death in the first few hours, it was probably gangrene or lead poisoning that took him. Either way, it was not an easy death. The shame of it was, had a doctor been present on August 10, the patient would likely have survived. Despite liberal doses of whiskey, Byrne must have been in intense pain before slipping into delirium at the end. West would later declare in affidavit: “During all that time he was as cool as a cucumber. I never saw a man die braver in my life.”

Byrne knew he was dying and discussed his fate calmly with West, informing the young driver he had a wife in Fort Worth and had “expected something like this would take place… that he was so positive of it that he made his will before he started.” He directed West to the envelope in his coat pocket containing his will and farewell to Lilly and asked him to see that it was delivered. West inquired if he had any children, and the general said, no, only his wife, and the letters would tell her “what to do with his property.”

A detail buried Byrne’s body in the post cemetery at Fort Quitman, and the letter to Lilly was forwarded to her per his instructions through Major C.K. Fairfax, a Confederate veteran and owner of the Transcontinental Hotel in Fort Worth. Byrne knew he could depend on his friend Fairfax to deliver it with appropriate sensitivity. The major had to wait to deliver it as Lilly was summering in Minnesota with her sister, making her among the last to get the news. Not until her return home on August 17 did she read the letter and learn the details of her husband’s death. Over the next two weeks the commander of the garrison at Fort Quitman, Captain Nicholas Nolan, though he did not know Lilly Byrne personally, wrote three letters to her expressing his condolences and providing details of her husband’s death at the hands of “murderous savages.”

 

Fort Worth was no stranger to Indian depredations from its early days as a frontier outpost. Reacting with outrage to the unprovoked killing, the August 17, 1880, Fort Worth Democrat editorialized: “[General Byrne’s] death at any time would cause regret. It is made more poignant that his death was caused by the bloodthirsty Indians who we are all taxed to support in idleness. This one life was worth more than every red devil in America.”

One Fort Worth resident personally affected by the news was Pat Dowling. Remembering his pledge to Byrne, he bought a nice coffin, hitched up a buckboard and started on the long journey west to Fort Quitman. No one accompanied him on the dangerous trip. He traveled by night and hid from the Indians by day. When he got to Fort Quitman he dug up the remains and packed them in charcoal in the coffin for the return trip. The determined Irishman finally returned to Fort Worth seven weeks after he had set out. A delegation of local citizens led by Major Khleber Van Zandt, another Confederate veteran, met Dowling at the city limits to provide suitable escort.

General Byrne was re-interred with full honors in Fort Worth’s Pioneers Rest Cemetery on November 21, 1880. At his own request he was buried in the same plot as his and Lilly’s only child, and space was left in the same plot for Lilly when her time came. Lilly Byrne attended the service in her widow’s weeds, the fateful letter clutched to her breast and tears running down her cheeks.

The death of General Byrne energized the Army. Colonel Benjamin Grierson, leading the 10th U.S. Cavalry and assisted by the 24th Infantry out of Fort Davis, blocked the border crossing points and watched the watering holes favored by Victorio’s band. Driven back into Mexico, Victorio was finally brought to bay by a combined force of Mexican soldiers and civilians at a watering hole in the Chihuahuan Desert known as Tres Castillos on October 14, 1881. His death in that engagement put an end to the Apache wars in Texas.

Fort Quitman, where Byrne breathed his last, did not survive much longer. After the railroad bypassed the post, the Army closed it down in 1882. Today only the post cemetery, where Byrne’s body lay for two months, remains. A forlorn historical marker in El Paso County marks the site of the deadly Apache attack of August 10, 1880, and its sole victim.

 

Fort Worth resident Richard Selcer often writes about historic subjects related to his hometown. For further reading see Dan L. Thrapp’s Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography and Victorio and the Mimbres Apaches. Byrne’s letters to his wife are among the collections of the Tarrant County Archives in Fort Worth.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.

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